underground is where the power flows. That's the best kept
secret of our time...Power flows under the surface, far beneath the
level you and I live on."
Don DeLillo, Great
If there is a controlling artistic passion revealed in Steve Tobin's
sculpture, it is the exploration of power. This pursuit of power is
not for political or dogmatic ends, but for conceptual and artistic
ones. Tobin highlights the unseen or ignored or undervalued
forces that drive and shape nature and the stellar, cataclysmic events
that create universes.
Power is invisible, so Tobin must show the ends
rather than the means. He accomplishes that by inventing and
refining the tools and techniques needed to gain an advantage over the
invisible, to uproot from the underground, to capture the impact of an
explosion. He has harnessed liquid media like bronze and wax and
glass because they have a duality that parallels the dual nature of
power: means and ends, liquid and solid, slickly elusive and brutally
physical. The result is what Tobin refers to as "bringing
art and artifact together," a fragment of his own imagination
realized as a work of art. Tobin envisions someone stumbling upon and
pondering such a work hundreds of years from now as an archeological
curiosity. And he contemplates how a bronze termite hill might survive
an ice age or be transformed during a volcanic event.
This deference on the part of the artist to an
unforeseeable future of undeniably deconstructionist forces, one that
takes precedence over immediate gratification, is due in part to
Tobin's grounding in science and theoretical mathematics. Tobin
earned a B.S. degree from Tulane University in 1978, and although he
simultaneously studied art-- in the media of glass and ceramics--his
fascination with the scientific world, particularly as it related to
his affinity with nature, became the foundation upon which he
ultimately built his art career.
Tobin's issues, although presented formally in the
language of sculpture, are more deeply rooted in philosophy and
theoretical science than in art or art history. By its own
nature this art is out of step with current art trends, presenting a
kind of separatist's viewpoint. Physicist and superstring
theorist Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe,
recently observed during a studio visit that Tobin's exploded clay
pieces function as celestial maps of equivalent galaxies. In Tobinís
words, "Science, art and philosophy are all attempting to define
the universe and man's relationship to it. The differences are just a
matter of language and syntax."
The art writer Robert Hughes has commented that Americans have
a tendency to "make things up as they go along." Tobin
himself is not a very political creature, but if there is a political
dimension to his art, it is a kind of homemade anarchism.
Anarchy, according to Malatesta's famous definition of anarchism as
"propaganda by deed." Tobin combines the disciplined
techniques of science and technology with a chaotic work style that
might be defined as "The Event Itself is the Only Truth."
Tobin's studio occupies a hollow in rural
Pennsylvania, about an hour's drive from Philadelphia. The
workshops are in a barn and a series of detached buildings dotted over
13 acres, and the sounds that emerge from them are humming or metallic
from the constant work of a dozen or so studio assistants (from
countries as far apart as Japan, Africa and Russia) who participate in
the execution of Tobin's monumental sculptures. It is
interesting to note that not one of the many artworks in his sculpture
garden, or in the various detached buildings that comprise his studio
compound, or in the 200-year-old farmhouse where he lives, are
commissioned works. While at any moment many are destined for
private and corporate collections, museum and gallery exhibitions, all
were conceived of, executed and financed by the artist in a
relentlessly visionary fashion. Created without regard as to how they
might ultimately be marketed, many of the huge sculpture projects
leave the artist walking a fine line on the financial edge.
A tour through the sculpture garden reveals a
startling array of works from the artist's past and present in diverse
media, all vitally unified through Tobin's devotion to organic subject
matter. There are the shelters, including Tepee (1992), a
shining 25 foot high tepee constructed of industrial waste (medical
glass tubing) mounted on a steel frame. The white glass refracts
sun and moonlight so brilliantly that it leaves a searing impression
on the retina after even a short viewing period. The Adobe
(1994) is a beehive-shaped structure made entirely of 1000 surplus
M-60 bullet resistant tank windows, products of the vast cold-war era
military-industrial complex. Art critic Nancy Princenthal
describes the interior of the work: "like the inside of a tank,
(it) creates a position of sheltered aggression." Adobe
celebrates the industrial process that created these wonderful windows
while simultaneously recognizing the failure (and implicit horror) of
the military side of the equation.
Another shelter, Matzoth House, is quite
emphatically about the conflict between spirit and body.
Composed of cast bronze Matzoth wafers, art critic John Perreault has
described the effect as: "Light revivifies unleavened bread and
its sacred meaning." Inside, pricked by splintered beams of
daylight, you feel the weight (but you can't see the image) of a
spiritual force that is somewhere outside. Outside, the gilded
structure represents all things golden: the golden calf, the beauty of
the physical. Tobin's point is that the body houses the spirit.
Matzoth House answers the riddle that Henry James once posed,
"When it becomes the thing it's guilty; when it doesn't become
guilty it doesn't become the thing."
Sprouting among the shelters are a dozen of the
towering bronze Termite Hills that Tobin is perhaps best known
for as well as the I-beam sculptures, constructed from materials
salvaged from a dumpsite at the local Bethlehem Steel Factory. The Paddle
and Tube pieces, also made from industrial waste, create a new
vocabulary of natural forms, including Sunflower, Crysanthemum
and Mushroom. These are fused from discarded steel tubes that
were formerly used to launch fireworks displays, and Tobin has
designed the sculptures so that fireworks can still be set off from
the hundreds of tubes. And the Bone pieces include archways,
balls and walls made of bronzed cow and buffalo bones. Inside the barn
are entire series from Tobin's previous life as one of the most
innovative artists working with glass.
Tobin's most significant body of work is the Earth
Bronze Trilogy, consisting of the Forest Floor pieces, Termite
Hills and the exposed Roots. Like a set of three
connected novels, each explores a different aspect of the ground under
our feet. The whole point is to play with the surface of the
earth as if it were a permeable membrane, like a sheet of water: to
take us underground, to float us for an instant on the surface, to
pull the stuff underground up through the soil and elevate it.
Tobin could have chosen to construct each of these series from the
original materials: wood, dirt, leaves, like the Land or Earth
artists, including Andy Goldsworthy. Robert Smithson captured
the poetry of this approach when he remarked that "Instead of
putting a work of art on some land, some land is put into the work of
Instead, Tobin developed a process of casting and
replacing natural materials with bronze. Tobin can take any one
of those rain-covered leaves from a tree next to the barn and produce
a bronze cast no thicker than that leaf. He likes the monumental
associations of bronze, and it could be said that he stands Smithson
on his head, making it "Some art is inserted into the land."
Tobin fills the natural form with the substance of art. The way
he describes it is, "the removal of one, the replacement with
another, so you can see what is missing."
The Forest Floor bronzes (shown at O.K.
Harris Gallery in New York in 1998) address one of Tobinís central
objectives: to refocus our vision on those things we overlook, usually
through over-familiarity. By casting the detritus of the ground, and
by then raising the castings up to a vertical position, he turns them
into doorways back to the earth. The scent of death upon the land
hangs heavy over this work, but perhaps no heavier than it does in a
Cathedral, where time immemorial has mellowed sorrow and replaced it
In the Termite Hills bronzes, Tobin sought
to stress that the "insect is something more than a thing that we
step on." From the perspective of a termite these monuments
are larger than the pyramids. By converting the earthen
structures to bronze, Tobin made them transportable and monumental.
And when they begin to appear on the streets of Manhattan in the next
6-12 months as part of a public art project they should evoke a fresh
sense of wonder, particularly given their juxtaposition with one of
the best known skylines in the world and their multicultural
connotation (Tobin galvanized an entire village in Ghana, Africa in
order to bring the project into fruition). Or as art critic John
Perreault wrote: "The sculptures he presents are alien.
They are not statues. There is also not a hint of cubism or
minimalism. They shock." Tobin plans to amplify the
shock when he returns to Ghana to build kilns around, and then fire,
the abandoned termite hills: "the direct earth as art, with my
transformation by fire."
We don't usually get to see ghosts, but when Tobin
excavated the earth to get at the entire root structure of a dead oak
tree on his property, his objective was to make the unseen realm of
roots visible. One Root piece measures 25 feet high and
45 feet in diameter. It is not an exact replica of the
underground root network, because as painstakingly as the roots were
removed, some were damaged in the process. The natural
structure, from the trunk down to the most delicate tendrils, was cast
in bronze and then reassembled like the reconstruction of a dinosaur
skeleton, where some pieces are inevitably missing. It has, for
Tobin, become a monumental obstacle to the expansion of his studio
space. A smaller Root, measuring 10 feet high and 10 feet
in diameter is currently on exhibition as part of the Vancouver
International Sculpture Project along with sculptures by Louise
Nevelson, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and others.
A partial list of Tobin's
artworks in multiple media, series and scales would include (besides
those already discussed) the blown glass Cocoons (1984-90),
some 15' tall, and presently on exhibition at the Corning Museum of
Glass in Corning, New York; the Waterglass rivers and
waterfalls (1983-present), the largest 100' long; the cast glass Doors
and Torsos (1990-93); various Shelters; installations
including the Retretti Caves in Finland (1993); the small surreal Toys
and Shoes (1993-present); and the ceramic Exploded Clay
(summer 1999-present) sculptures, some now too large to fit through
the studio door, that the artist also calls Bang Pots.
This diversity sounds a theme advanced by other
artists during the last 15 years: That art should be free to seek the
form appropriate to the concept, regardless of material or style or
subject. For example, Charles Ray moves effortlessly from Ink
Box of 1986 -- a plexi cube filled with ink to resemble a minimal
sculpture -- to the more recent nude sculptures of himself.
Tobin's anarchistic approach also shares a superficial resemblance to
the British "sensation" sculptors like Damien Hirst (a Tiger
Shark in formaldehyde, the sliced cows and pigs intended to shock the
audience) and Rachel Whiteread (rooms or an entire house cast in
concrete). The controversy Whiteread elicited was described by
Iain Sinclair in language worthy of an Oregon Anarchist (the group
that disrupted the Seattle World Trade Organization meetings):
"...her project would fuse all the loose wires of potential
catastrophe. House, seen from across the field, was a
giant plug, feeding current into the madness of the city."
Tobin inverts Whiteread's process, preferring to cast the exteriors of
things, leaving the interiors unseen, or seen only through veils of
color and fractures of glass, as in the Doors series. But
the sense of shock remains: viewers caught off guard by his giant Waterglass
waterfall, either in a New York City museum or in the context of an
ancient barn, wonder how such a mammoth flow of water can be so silent
-- until they discover that it is frozen, and then recognize that the
water is, in fact, made of thousands of strands of glass fibers.
Tobin and the sensation artists take to heart Ralph
Waldo Emerson's statement that "People wish to be settled; only
as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."
But where some of the new British artists employ an ironic or
sarcastic approach as a means of capturing public attention, Tobin
works through wonders intended to create an atmosphere of speculation,
doubt and surprise. His is a more romantic appreciation of the
immense intricacy of nature, one that links him to artists like Fred
Tomaselli, whose 1997-98 Lands End collages look like
illustrations of birds but are made from cutouts from mail order
catalogs; or Roxy Paine, whose sculpture Crop of 1997-98 is a
study of complexity that follows the life cycle of the poppy all the
way through to its role in the drug culture.
Tobin's most substantial divergence from
contemporary art is in his attitude toward the commodification of
artworks, the capitalist alchemy that seems capable of packaging
anything spiritual or cultural and transforming into a commodity that
can be sold. The critique of consumer culture that is implicit
in advanced art at least since Warhol has proceeded mostly through a
satirical recognition of the emptiness and lifelessness of consumer
culture and its objects. In many contemporary artworks, the
material of the art plays a decidedly secondary role to the concept,
as if a firewall has been erected between the spiritual and the
material to keep the one from infecting the other.
Even so, Tobin revels in the solid presence of
objects. He is on easy terms with the industrial processes that
allow cultural artifacts to be produced. Mostly, he revels in
the life of objects, admiring an artist like Henry Moore for his
attitude that "a work can have in it a pent-up energy, an intense
life of its own, independent of the object it may represent."
Both Matzoth House and Adobe speak to this issue.
always hide other visible things.Ē
The architecture critic Herbert Muschamp has
written about "the increasing awareness that art resides only
partly within the individual artwork. It also lives in the
spirit of risk and experimentation that works of art help
sustain." This produces "...an American style of freedom.
That style is voluptuous, emotional, intuitive and exhibitionist.
It is mobile, fluid, material, mercurial, fearless, radiant and as
fragile as a newborn child..." That describes the Steve Tobin who
spent much time in a tree house that was built by his father in the
woods adjacent to the family's home in Philadelphia. Tobinís
work largely springs from the tree house of his youth where he could
observe nature. He brings an exuberance and youthful abandon to the
work while fretting inwardly about how he will conquer his next
project. His periodic despair is not depression, it is the
anguish of anyone who has ever tried to catch hold of the thing
itself, only to find that thing elusive, simply one layer of truth
beneath which is another and another and another.
Tobin's latest foray
has been a radical exploration of the architectural form and it's
relationship to a power event, the explosion. He
has found a way to embed a small explosive charge inside a large chunk
of raw clay, roughly cubic in shape. After detonation the
exploded forms are fired in a kiln, usually along with several
fragments that have been ejected from these freshly minted clay
volcanoes. The chemical traces from the explosive create a
lovely fluctuating metallic glaze of silvery blue grays. These
are extremely beautiful objects, but upon closer scrutiny we wonder:
what is the point? Are they artworks? Are they some sort of
demonstration of natural forces? Tobin suggests that: "in
the ceramics my colors or glazes all come from bits of bronze dust and
glass dust from the grinding areas of my studio, or from the
explosives themselves -- they are all colored by the explosion.
This is important to me because if I used traditional ceramic glazes
the work would fall under the shadow of the history of every piece of
glazed ceramic ever done. The explosion and the fire that
created the Exploded Clay colors directly tell the story of
event of creation. The galaxy-like markings on the interiors of
the Exploded Clay resemble the appearance of the universe after
the big bang explosion." Chaos has turned to wonder.
Standing in front of an exploded clay form inspires the same kind of
wonder one feels when gazing into the exploded sky.
clay in process (detail)
Recently, there has been an attempt to revive the
stature of the wonder (a rock that looks like a duck, a side of beef
that glows in the dark), which since the enlightenment has been mostly
confined to the realm of circuses and natural history museums.
Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park write in Wonders and the Order
of Nature: 1150-1750, that "It was the mutual imitation of
art and nature that was wondrous, not the objects in themselves...Most
wondrous of all were objects so ambiguous that spectators could not
decide whether they were works of art or works of nature."
The authors note that the vocabulary of wonder in the middle ages had
a "unified profile" and that the words for passion and
objects were closely related, "signaling the tight links between
subjective experience and objective referents."
Tobin has proven a master at creating wonders, and
at using these wonders to sidestep the issue of beauty in art.
His works are not beautiful, but they are wonderful in that antique
sense of being 'passionate objects' that confuse us as to their
origins. The intensity of this confusion is the engine of
Tobin's brand of anarchism. And his anarchic art is largely
there to jolt us into seeing the results of power: insect power,
explosive actions, the terror of dreams. Tobin creates memorials
to power and monuments to creative forces.
In the wake of the Earth Bronze Trilogy,
Tobin is planning his next project titled Sandcastles. He will
install a "beach" in his studio where life-size sandcastles
will be constructed and then turned into bronze: "Making
permanent those things that are fleeting. Solidifying
dreams." Like the Termite Mounds, Sandcastles
will be structures of the ground that, once bronzed, will become
permanent fortresses against the reclaiming forces of nature. At
least until the next ice age comes along to test Tobin's metal.
Ithaca, New York
August 30, 2000